Missoulian: Montana Checkbook, salaries go online

…The database won praise from Carl Graham, CEO of the Montana Policy Institute, which had been pushing the state to create online sites showing both expenses and salaries. His group successfully sued the state over the salary information during the Schweitzer administration and put the pay information on its website…

This story appeared in Lee newspapers across the state.

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Montana’s New Transparency Site

The state has finally put a checkbook and employee salaries online. Good for them. And I mean that. It’s a great first step and Governor Bullock and his new administration deserve great credit for doing it.

So now let’s make it much more useful with just a little more effort.

How do we do that?

First, expand the dates of data available on the online checkbook. While a snapshot is nice for looking at who sold the state, for example, copy paper last December, what’s really nice  to know is how much the state – or a department – spends on copy paper over time and who supplies it. That would allow departments and agencies to make comparisons prior to going shopping themselves, vendors to tailor their bids based on going rates, and citizens to compare how they spend their money to how the state spends it. All of those actions will save dollars by creating a more competitive and transparent process and give taxpayers assurances that that process is both fair and effective.

Next, expand the dates and include total compensation for state employees. There are two issues here. First, expanding the dates is important so that taxpayers can see compensation trends rather than snapshots in time. Why is this important? The recent pay freeze provides a perfect example. By looking at trend data on MPI’s own transparency portal, it’s clear that virtually every state employee was being paid more at the end of the ‘freeze’ period than before it, and that the largest increases occurred at the higher pay bands. You can only get that kind of information from trends, which requires multiple years of pay data available.

But even more importantly, as far as I can tell the state’s pay data only has hourly rates and does not include things like overtime, bonuses, and any number of other forms of compensation that state employees receive. That’ just dishonest. The state wants to know everything that you make – what’s on your W-2 – when you calculate your taxes. You should see everything they make when you pay those taxes. Now of course I’m not talking about travel pay and other straight reimbursements of direct costs associated with doing their jobs; but if it’s considered compensation by the Department of Revenue, it should be available to taxpayers.

So…it’s a good start but let’s not be satisfied with it just yet. The state could add immeasurable benefit to their site by expanding the dates back at least five years and including all employee compensation, not just basic pay rates. They created this site out of available funds, which is very commendable considering former Governor Schweitzer killed previous efforts by saying it would cost millions. So let’s invest a little more to increase the efficiency of our state government and our taxpayers’ confidence in it.

Oh, by the way. Did I mention the Montana University System isn’t even included in the discussion much less the data. Let’s see if they’re willing to step up before being prodded into it.